The Human Cost of Racism

I’m going to break blog silence today, and speak, as well as I can, about Trayvon Martin.

Trayvon Martin, 1995-2012

Trayvon Martin, 1995-2012

Have you heard his name yet? The 17-year-old boy who was shot dead by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman for carrying skittles and walking slowly home in the rain? Whose killer walked free without so much as a night in jail? Who you can hear screaming for help on the 911 tapes? Whose death screams were heard by a witness who was CORRECTED by a police officer when she said she heard Trayvon screaming for help?

It’s been a month now, and George Zimmerman is still free. This is far from an isolated incident, though the circumstances may make it more blatantly a travesty than some. This is what every black mother is afraid of every moment that her son is out of her sight.

Do you know what it is to be afraid for your child’s life? Not afraid that they will do something stupid, or there will be an accident – but that they will be killed, just for existing in their own skin.

All parents have moments of fear for their children. When they don’t nurse like you are told they should. When they fall off the bed the first time. When you turn around at the zoo and find them nowhere to be seen. As terrible as that lurching, dizzying pain is, it is mundane, normal, and thanks to my mostly-neurotypicality it lives in the background, only coming out occasionally.

This is the fear that black parents must live with every moment of their lives.

And in the end I know that if my son gets lost at the zoo, say, he can depend on not only his bubbly cuteness and his wits to find his way to safety, but on the color of his skin.

Because my son is white, he is not automatically seen as a threat as a black boy would be, even at the tender age of five. Imagine a five-year-old black boy wandering alone at the zoo – do you think people would be as quick to offer him help? They would justify their inaction by thoughts that “those people raise their children to be more independent, so he’s probably fine”; or they would call security rather than offering a kind word. And if you think I’m wrong, then you’ve deliberately chosen not to see what is right in front of you.

A few weeks ago we hired a couple of men to help us move. They were black men, charming and friendly and guys I wish I’d met before moving out of the neighborhood. One of them arrived early, and our next-door neighbor, who’s never even spoken to us, told him he looked suspicious for sitting on our doorstep, waiting for us to get back. Do you think a white man would have gotten the same kind of questioning?

Yesterday I took my son to the playground, where a young black boy about his age was already playing. My son barged in front of him and took over the toy he was playing with. I intervened, scolded my son, and took him to play on a different piece of equipment. My son is impetuous and not the best with his social skills, and might have done that to anyone – but I couldn’t help but wonder if he would have pushed so quickly in front of a white kid. I’ve done my damnedest to teach him to treat everyone as equally worthy of politeness, but I’m new at this myself and am fighting a world created out of white supremacist poison that seeps into all of us from the moment we are born. I try, I will keep trying, but it’s not enough, will never be enough – and still my discomfort is nothing next to the pain of a black mother who must fear for her son’s life every moment of every day.

White American culture teaches us not to see race, not to talk about it. Calling someone a racist is the worst thing you can do, worse than pointing out the sort of injustice that led to Trayvon’s death for Existing While Black. We live in a segregated society that allows us to continue our racist stereotypes unchallenged, allows us to live without ever even asking why it is that you don’t know any black people, or thinking because your one black friend acts totally “normal” (read: “white”) you’re totally not racist, nevermind that you never go to “those” parts of town or approach the black salesperson when a white one is free, or even realize that you never quite make eye contact or let your fingers touch the black cashier’s at the supermarket.

Yes, all these things are totally normal and happen every day. Don’t get in a huff and say “well, we’re not *all* like that!” Instead listen to the people of color who talk about these and countless other microaggressions happening to them every damned day, and then ask yourself why they might be a tad tetchy just because you “didn’t know it was rude” to come up and touch their afro without asking. (Would you touch a white woman’s hair without asking? Seriously?)

And if you’re still so convinced that you’ve never done anything like this, how about you get mad at the white people who do, rather than the black people who call it out for what it is – institutionalized, normalized white racism, designed and perpetuated for the purpose of making black people less than human, giving the prison-industrial complex fodder for its money machine without the need to muck about with tawdry things like evidence and justice.

If I sound angry, it’s because I am. And yet this is not about my life. I can post this secure in the knowledge that nobody will appear in the comments calling me a n****r because I too have the unasked-for power of my white skin protecting me. I wear black today in memory of Trayvon and his fallen brethren, but I can never take off my white skin or know what it is to be black in this country. I can witness, and listen, remember, and let people of color mourn in their own way, and try to speak up when I see other white people doing stupid racist shit.

You can do the same. Start by listening. And if you don’t know how to confront someone who is being a racist ass, consider that a well-placed raised eyebrow can work wonders. Don’t let it pass unremarked. Don’t laugh at racist jokes. If you don’t know if it’s racist, flip races and see if it’s still funny. (The same trick works for genders and sexist jokes.) Even if you don’t think you’re racist, this stuff gets in you and becomes normal because it’s so pervasive. Learn to see it. Learn to see.


Good places to start:
Angry Black Bitch
Angry Black Woman
Dumb Things White People Say
Love Isn’t Enough
Womanist Musings

My challenge to you: add some of these blogs to your feed reader, and take a few minutes each week to listen to the worldview of a POC.

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Love is for all

Two women embrace against a rainbow background.

“Love” by Heather Keith Freeman
8.85″”x11.75″, pen and ink on watercolor paper

Image description: Two women embrace against a rainbow background.

On June 24th, 2011, along with thousands of other people all over the United States, I sat glued to the live video feed of the New York State Senate as they finally voted to pass marriage equality for same-sex couples. The sixth and largest state to do so, New York joins the ranks of those who recognize that marriage has its basis in love, not a magic combination of genitalia.

I tried in this image to communicate that love, steering clear of the common representation of woman-to-woman affection as something performed for the male gaze. These are two women deeply in love, and if they live in New York, one small step closer to having their relationship recognized as equal to any heterosexual one.

I am a woman married to a man, and I declare that my marriage shall be worth more on the day that marriage rights are extended to everyone, not less.

There’s a long, long way to go yet. Not just marriage rights, but employment and housing non-discrimination, proper support and assistance for GLBT youth who have been kicked out of their homes, and the elimination of the shocking murder rate of trans people, just for a start.

My right to live as myself does not take away from your right to be a bigoted asshole. Hmm – that could make a good bumper sticker for my Zazzle store.

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Not Yours II

A woman seen from front and below in black and white. Behind her float the words in white 'NOT YOUR BODY / NOT YOUR LIFE / NOT YOUR BUSINESS' . In her right hand she holds a paintbrush against her abdomen, where written in white is 'NOT YOURS'.

“NOT YOURS II” by Heather Keith Freeman
11″x14″, pen and ink on watercolor paper

Image description: A woman seen from front and below in black and white. Behind her float the words in white ‘NOT YOUR BODY / NOT YOUR LIFE / NOT YOUR BUSINESS’ . In her right hand she holds a paintbrush against her abdomen, where written in white is ‘NOT YOURS’.

As the political attacks against women’s humanity continue, so does this series.

(See also: NOT YOURS)

Technical notes:
I’m in the midst of some extensive digital edits to this before I make prints available. I’m having issues with my scanner (a Canon MP860) blurring everything but whatever is in the very middle of the platen. What I end up with is good enough for web, but I’m reluctant to put it up for sale in larger formats as is. Any artists out there have recommendations for scanners that don’t do this, or ways to make it stop doing this? I am Most Aggravated.

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New Art: The Shattering

A woman shown from the hips up, head thrown back and arms extended. Behind her head explodes a cacophony of colors, streaking through the darkness that surrounds her.

“The Shattering” by Heather Keith Freeman
11″x15″, pen and ink on watercolor paper

Image description: A woman shown from the hips up, head thrown back and arms extended. Behind her head explodes a cacophony of colors, streaking through the darkness that surrounds her.

So I’ve been fighting a particularly bad bout of depression for the last few months. If you’ve ever been depressed, like at least 10% of the US (that statistic seems low to me, but it’s the best I could find), then you may recognize the feeling I’m describing with this painting.

When you have the stomach flu, there’s generally a period of hoping against hope that you’re not going to throw up, followed by a period of hoping you do throw up, because it will stop the pain.

One of the mood cycles in depression is a feeling of intense pressure within your mind, and you’re hoping and hoping that you can keep everything from flying apart…. followed by a time where you actually kind of want everything in your head to just explode already, so you can get on with picking up the pieces.

And sometimes when you’re still trying to keep it together, stuff starts leaking out around the edges.

My husband commented that it looked like she was regenerating – a Doctor Who reference. If so, it’s David Tennant’s regeneration – she doesn’t want to go, and it’s violent and painful and extraordinary.

Filed under Activist Art due to the continuing need to educate people about the reality of depression as a true illness.

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Get It Out of Me, Take Two

Remember this painting, Get It Out of Me?

I loved the concept, but was never happy with the execution, particularly with her face. It just didn’t fit. I was very new to drawing fat women, and I think it showed.

So after a year or two sitting on it, it felt right to approach the idea again. There’s more depth to her, now, more integration and complexity. She is now as she was meant to be from the beginning.

Here is the essay I wrote to accompany the original.

A fat white woman holds her body open to reveal a molded-plastic doll body inside. Behind her repeat the words 'GET IT OUT OF ME'

“Get It Out of Me (version 2)” by Heather Keith Freeman
8″x10″, pen and ink on vellum

We pause for an exorcism.

You know that incredibly loathsome phrase, “Inside every fat person is a thin person struggling to get out?”

Well, it’s kind of true. Except the thin person is not the perfectly healthy, sexy ideal person our culture would like you to believe. No, the thin person inside us is artificially starved, surgically reproportioned, plastic sculpted to make us perfectly pretty, empty-headed dolls.

The thin person inside us is Barbie.


This is the representation of the voice in our ear whispering that we are worthless, ugly freaks if we don’t spend every spare moment exercising and every meal eating salad.

This is the urge to read the fashion magazines that leave us feeling shamed and fat and poor.

This is every cringe when we look in the mirror in the morning and see nothing but flaws.

This is the Disney princess and the Playboy centerfold and the meanest, prettiest cheerleader in the school.

This is the plastic mantra that we can’t unhear, repeating incessantly that we are only valued by our appearance, and by whether men want to fuck us.

And it’s inside me, permeating my being, poisoning my mind in ways I don’t even realize because it’s always been there.


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A black woman in profile, arm outstretched, fingers grasping and turned downward. Beneath her hand, the sun rises over the earth.

Half the Sky by Heather Keith Freeman
14″x17″, pen and ink on watercolor paper

So I have no idea how to tell this story without it seeming like bragging, but it’s touched me deeply and I’d like to write about it.

Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Arts Festival started last Friday. It snarled up mass transit downtown, so my husband took a cab home. The driver, a friendly black woman, was chatting with him about the festival, and said that she was kind of interested in going but that the kind of art that gets shown is so mainstream and white.

Andrei pulled out Half the Sky to show her, told her a little about it and why I am actively working to show people of color in my artwork.

She was, by my husband’s account, impressed and pleased, and happy to know that there were artists out there who “got it.”

And I’m validated in ways I can’t even describe to know that a black woman has seen what I’m trying to do and appreciates it.

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New Art: Pedestal

I’ve spent the week recovering from Wiscon (short form: it was awesome! totally going back! informal reports on my personal journal), but here is the painting I alluded to earlier which was revealed for the first time at Wiscon’s art show:

A white woman looks nervously down from a pedestal formed of words, backed by a shimmering abstract blend of purple, red, and pink.

“Pedestal” by Heather Keith Freeman
8″x10″, pen and ink on watercolor paper

[image description: A white woman looks nervously down from a pedestal formed of words, backed by a shimmering abstract blend of purple, red, and pink.

Forming the top of the pedestal are the words "GET ME OFF THIS DAMN PEDESTAL."

Forming the column of the pedestal, in myriad different handwritten fonts, are words generally framed as compliments to those perceived as feminine: "pretty, loyal, feminine, bubbly, ladylike, virgin, pure, precious, devoted, demure, charming, sexy, refined, vivacious, lovely, exotic, baby, accomplished, chaste, cute, darling, beautiful, sweet, adorable."]

“A pedestal is as much a prison as any small, confined space.” –Gloria Steinem

I’m sure everyone’s familiar with the idea of a backhanded compliment: where all the words are polite, even nice, but they are used in a context and a manner that actually insults the person being described.

“You’re so much smarter than most girls!”


“What? I said you were smart! That’s a compliment!”

Even more subtle are descriptions that serve to separate and elevate the object; even if it is in a complimentary fashion, it is still dehumanizing. And with that built-in defense of “but it was a compliment”, no wonder it is so frequently used by those with more privilege to keep those below them in their place.

This piece focuses on those words most frequently used to compliment white women (I totally should have worked “delicate” and “fragile” in there too). A few words, like “exotic” and “dainty” are even more frequently aimed at women of color; the gender/race intersection when it comes to language is complex and hideous. (I focused on the language used on white women because that is what I am most familiar with, and I didn’t trust myself to deal with the racial intersection in a non-faily way.)

Because this comes up every. single. time I’ve talked to someone about this painting, I will reiterate that the problem is not with being complimented! The problem is with the context, the connotations, and the strength with which words like these call up the stereotype of a waifish, fainting flower with little intelligence and less willpower.

I don’t want to be put on a pedestal. It’s lonely and cold up here, and I feel so brittle, like I will shatter if I so much as breathe.

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Adventures in Progressive Parenting

A child sits and plays with swirls of blue-green-yellow energy.

My son is getting to the age where I can start explaining complex concepts to him and they almost make a dent. Just a couple of days ago, in the span of about 15 minutes, we covered:

  • why we recycle
  • gender as internal identification rather than something biologically determined (including that some people are neither boys or girls, or change from one to the other, or are one despite having a body society believes matches the other)
  • what happens to our bodies when we die

Any day now I expect him to ask why I keep changing the pronouns when I read him books. I plan to answer something like this: “Most stories that are published are written about boys, and that’s not fair, because stories about girls are interesting and fun too. So I change them, so we can hear girls’ stories too.” If I had more confidence in my voice I’d use gender-neutral pronouns too.

The hardest thing to combat has been his preschool telling him that girls and boys are opposites; not only is that not true, but I believe it’s the basis for a lot of really damaging gender stereotypes. But I can’t teach him to disregard gender entirely, because, cultural fiction or no, our society is built on it and he has to learn to function within it.

I know many parents (myself included) are scared of talking about stuff like this with our kids. Whatever we do say is sure to be full of fail, especially as the language to even discuss these concepts is still evolving, but saying nothing allows our sexist and racist society to be the teacher. Color- and gender-blindness aren’t answers, because they allow us to not see the problems that are ingrained in the way we live. As with every aspect of parenting, you do the best you can, and hope they end up less damaged than you.

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I stand with Planned Parenthood.

The U.S. House of Representatives has voted to eliminate all Title X funding. The boogeyman for this move, though it receives less than a third of the 317 million in Title X funds, is Planned Parenthood, and the services it provides to millions of people, many of them young, poor, and with nowhere else to go.

Those services include birth control, STD and cancer screenings, the HPV vaccine, pregnancy testing, and counseling. They are provided free or low-cost to those who would otherwise not be able to access them. This in turn means more of these women survive to live healthy and productive lives, have children when and if they choose, and allows them control over their own bodies.

Because my body is mine – not yours. Because my health care decisions are mine – not yours. Because all women deserve the same autonomy and basic human right to control their own bodies, and not be subjugated to another against their will. Because no one else can define my life or my moral landscape, because no one else lives my life, because of all these things, I stand with Planned Parenthood.

Part of the “I Stand with Planned Parenthood” Blog Carnival.

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In which I grumble some more about movie captioning

Movie poster for TRON: Legacy. A lightcyle in the foreground.

So TRON: Legacy is out. I’ve been dying to see this ever since I heard it was being made. And if you know anything about the film or its predecessor, you know why I would really, really like to see it on the big screen.

Chances are I won’t.

There are two theatres within 30 miles of me that have screens with captioning systems. Neither of them has the system on a screen that also has 3-D or IMAX. TRON, of course, being in 3-D and IMAX, is being shown only on those non-captioned screens.

I have begged the theatre nearest me to show TRON on the captioned screen. They’ve smiled and said that they’d see what they can do, in that vacantly friendly, say-anything-so-the-customer-will-go-away tone. I’m not holding my breath.

But I should be grateful, so goes the mainstream narrative: the latest Harry Potter and Narnia films are on the captioned screens this weekend, which is better than the usual fare that ends up there. It doesn’t matter that it’s not the movie I want to see; I can still go see one! Even a “big” film that everyone was talking about…. a few weeks ago, anyway.

And I’m torn. Because the reviews I’ve heard of TRON imply that the narrative is really secondary, almost to the point of being unnecessary. It’s tempting to just go to a “regular” showing, just to enjoy the shiny. But I know myself, and I know that if I did it would depress and anger me, because, gosh, I actually like knowing what’s being said in a movie! It’s really pretty nifty to follow the plot, even if it’s only to snark at the bad writing!

Don’t say to me “you wouldn’t be missing anything,” because that misses the point. I should be the one to make that distinction.

Okay, okay, it’s just a movie. Just entertainment; frivolous, trashy, frequently offensive products that play to the lowest common denominator. But it’s also a notable segment of our culture. People bond by going to movies together, talking about movies, referencing movies, from the moment their trailers are released. By the time they’re out on DVD, I’ve already missed a significant portion of that. I, and the 20 million people in this country who are also deaf, hard of hearing, or have auditory processing disorders, are routinely, casually cut out of this. We don’t get the choice to participate or not. It’s taken for granted that we don’t matter.

Even to get to this point, where I get the option of any captioned movies at all, has required several lawsuits by the deaf community. More are in process, I believe pointing out how the tidal wave of movies in new technologies cuts out a significant portion of the public, but they will take years to settle. In the meantime, I will wait six months to see TRON in my living room, and close my ears to my friends chattering about how awesome it was, trying not to resent them for partaking of their able-bodied privilege.

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